WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
On March 11, Pixar Animation Studios’ latest feature film Turning Red was released on Disney+ for no additional cost. A Friday morning living room viewing replaced the traditional midnight premiere, and I have to say: Disney made the right call.
Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red proves what Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek has been saying for a while now. It is all about finding more dynamic ways to best reach the audience. Growing up amid Disney’s straight-to-video phase, I learned to associate anything Disney put out that was not going to Theaters as being of lower quality. And a while back, we shared how animators at Pixar Animation Studios were shocked and disappointed by Kareem Daniel’s distribution decision. But this is, indeed, a case where a film worthy of the silver screen needed to be sent straight to streaming. Because everybody–especially boys–needs to see this Pixar movie, and there is no better way for parents to get boys to watch it than by releasing it straight to Disney+.
Let me explain.
Turning Red: an Authentic, Original Story
Domee Shi and her team deliver an original story that is authentic, impactful, and stunning to the senses, and Pixar does not give everything away in the trailer. It tells a cautionary tale about the struggles of adolescence and the tension between being oneself and appeasing one’s family–cautionary for both Parents and their children. I also agree with the animators–this movie absolutely has something everyone can relate to.
The bildungsroman follows a thirteen-year-old girl, Meilin Lee, who discovers that she inherits a family gift. Like all the other women in her family, once she comes of age, any strong emotion will turn her into a giant red panda. Add this to the embarrassment that comes with having an overbearing mother (Sandra Oh) and the struggles of finding time for her friends and her family.
Her mother tells her there is a ritual to “cure” her. Storing the power of the Red Panda in a wearable object, her grandmother and aunties arrive to assist. But while her elders work to suppress her gift, Mei learns some control and finds her friends accept and love her special power.
I don’t want to give too much away in this piece, but from the moment she first transforms, Mei and her mother embark on a tense path designed to teach them both–and the audience–a lesson about self-control, self-acceptance, and to find the courage to forgive and be honest with one another.
Here’s the problem: It is still probably the most audience-specific feature-length film Disney and Pixar have ever greenlit. BUT it is a film that every member of the family needs to sit through. The best way Disney could get everyone in the family to watch it is by not charging them anything extra and putting it on Disney+.
The Red Panda in the Room
I admit, “audience-specific” is probably not the right word to describe Meilin Lee(Rosalie Chiang)’s story, but I’d argue that the story’s depth could pose audience bias if released exclusively in theaters.
Turning Red is clearly a wonderful coming-of-age movie made by Millennial women for women and young girls everywhere. Not even Brave was as explicitly specified for girls in its story. Ms. Shi and her team tell a very impactful, necessary story, but it is an authentic bildungsroman about a thirteen-year-old girl. And when I say authentic, I mean authentic…
THAT IS NOT A CRITICISM.
Amid the full immersion into 2000s pop culture that will make every millennial cringe to their very core–from boy band craze to flip phones–, we see the very real struggles of a young girl in grade eight dealing with the genuine matters of girls that age.
We see her start swooning over boys with her friends and trying to find herself outside of her family when she wakes up turned into the Red Panda. And Pixar is not subtle when it comes to hitting home the pubescent metaphor–honestly, they take it to almost a level of parody.
Despite what the trailer suggests, Mei does not spend the entire movie hiding her Red-Panda-ness. In fact, she and her friends put it to use and use some middle-school marketing to try and earn enough money to go see a boy band concert (that her mom is already strongly opposed to).
The movie’s writing really excels, and it feels like I’m watching a movie based on a book that was popular when I was in middle school in the best kind of way.
Watching the movie, it is clear that the giant red panda also symbolizes the overt power that comes with womanhood and is passed down from one generation to the next. With the inclusion of Mei Lee’s mother, grandmother, and aunties, we are reminded of the consequences when that power arises and comes into conflict with the older generation. (There is also a lesson about culture and assimilation, but that conversation deserves its own separate piece.)
The film crew left a note in the credits saying,
“Dedicated to our daughters, mothers, aunts, and grandmas. You’re magical!”
Turning Red has my vote for best mother-daughter movie of the decade and probably the century.
That being said, boys would not be lining up to see this one at AMC.
But boys NEED to see this movie, and it is so much easier to get boys–and dads–to watch this Pixar movie if it’s put straight on Disney+.
Every Boy Needs to See Turning Red
For starters, all males should observe, respect, appreciate and enjoy this story. That goes without saying. Now, for a movie so devoted to women, men are placed at such crucial positions in the story. Speaking as a boy, we are often oblivious to the struggles the women in our lives go through as well as the effect we can have on others–especially girls–and we need reminders like this.
It is a mother-daughter conflict over a boy that happens right before Meilin turns into the red panda. It is her fascination with a boy band that inspires her to actually learn how to control her red panda powers. And it is a boy that is her “bully” and brings out the worst in her.
There is also the fact that the Lee women still need the shaman in order to perform the “curing” ritual, separating from their red panda self.
Meilin’s dad does not say much, and purposefully so. Most of the scenes involve him getting pushed around or comedically getting out of the way. But when her mom (Sandra Oh) explains the seriousness of the family “gift” and essentially calls it a curse, her dad is the one that reminds her, “red is a lucky color.” We also learn that the love Meilin’s mom has for her dad caused a rift between her and her mother (Mei’s grandmother), and I’d argue he is the reason she decides to keep her power.
Disney still pulled out the red carpet for Pixar’s Turning Red for a proper premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. But I understand why the theatrical run stopped there. There is something irreplaceably magical about watching a Pixar or Disney animated film in a proper cinema, but there is also something vitally important about doing what is necessary to get certain stories in front of as many different people as possible.
More People Will Watch Turning Red on Disney+
While I may not agree, I can totally understand Disney’s fear of seeing Turning Red labeled by fans an “older girls only” film halfway through opening weekend. I can already see pictures of Mei Lee’s mother flashing that box of tampons in front of her whole math class, for example, being shared all over the internet. Such a move could easily and erroneously turn off close to 50% of the movie’s age demographic. Why would parents go through the effort to get the kids to the theaters and pay for tickets for a movie they don’t want to see or feel comfortable watching in a public place? Dropping the movie on Disney Plus free with a subscription eliminates that cop-out.
Turning Red is cringe-y, full of uncomfortable yet hilarious moments. But it also has a lot of heart, depth, and plenty of action with wonderful animation and great boy-band songs from Billie Eilish. It is beautifully written and offers a genuine, powerful story for the whole family. I highly recommend everyone reading this take the time to watch it this weekend.